Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Athens: Debt, Dictatorship and Democracy (Part 1)

Hi! I did plan to update this blog a few days ago but I’ve been having a bit of a nightmare. I left Athens for Belgrade last Friday. Unfortunately my flight was diverted to Nis, a shed masquerading as an airport four hours south of Belgrade so I didn’t arrive until early Saturday morning. Then to top things off I became violently ill so I barely got to see any of Belgrade at all. Not even meeting the BBC’s Serbia correspondent made up for my disappointment (he wasn’t in the mood to be networked and told me to stick to law!).

I was in Greece to find out more about the Athens Polytechnic Uprising.

In the late sixties, a group of right-wing generals seized power in Greece. In order to protect people from an alleged communist conspiracy, the military junta suspended many of the human rights we all take for granted, such as the right to free speech, the right to protest, even the right to think freely. Thousands were arrested, tortured and tried by military courts without having broken any laws. Press freedom was curtailed. Surveillance of citizens was widespread. People lived in perpetual fear. Greece became a police state the East German Stasi would have been proud of.
On November 15th 1973, a group of students occupied the Athens Polytechnic, demanding civil liberties and open elections. They created their own radio station using equipment stripped from labs and began to broadcast their message to the whole of Greece. Two days later, the military stormed the university with tanks and snipers. The military maintained that there were no deaths but independent observers estimate that at least 25 people were killed.

 The events of the uprising are widely seen as hastening the downfall of the military rule and the restoration of Greek democracy. Every year the on 17th November, the students of Athens march from the university to the American embassy both to commemorate the uprising and to protest against the USA’s support for the military junta.

This years march took o a whole new significance. Greece is in serious financial trouble. All Greek people accept this, even if they disagree on the reasons. What most Greek people do not accept is their perceived humiliation at the hands of the European Union. They are being told how to run their own country by outsiders who are neither elected nor accountable. When the latest Greek EU bailout package was agreed, the Greek Prime Minister tried to hold a referendum on it. He was told by the EU that he was not allowed to, and was then replaced with a former EU bureaucrat. For a nation who invented democracy, lost it, and then recently fought so hard to win it back, this is seen as an insult to those who suffered to resist the government during military rule.

What Follows is a photographic account of my day.


People from all walks of life turned out at the university the day before the march. The atmosphere is hard to describe; not quite solemn, but certainly reflective. There was also an air of defiance and aggression. People seemed to be motivated by different aims. Some simply wanted to pay their respects to those who had stood up to the dictatorship. Others were determined to vent their frustrations at the current Greek government by direct means. To paraphrase the guys above, ‘the only language governments listens to is violence’. Although most people intended to march peacefully, that how almost everyone expected the march to end. Below left is the view from the front gate (see video above) and a couple of students debating the issues of the day.


A moment of contemplation (above). Below, a group of students sit around discussing politics. People in Greece seem to be taking a keen interest in politics at the moment. As I wandered around, I wondered whether this was because of their current situation or whether it is a relic of culture surviving from the classical city-state days. My cynical side concluded that it was the former, although if the political system engaged with the people it is supposed to represent more proactively then maybe they would pay it more attention to it.

I left the university later that afternoon under the distinct impression that the march the day after was going to be a destructive one...

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant photos Steve, and thanks for blogging about this, it's really interesting to get a different perspective - the images and soundbites repeated on mainstream media are devoid of context and don't produce any real understanding of the situation. I just wanted to say re. your comment on whether the Greeks are taking a keen interest in politics due to current crisis, I travelled through Greece 10 years ago and all the young people I met seemed really politically aware and would sit in the pub talking about all sorts of global issues...